In 2013, Lee Daniels tried to capture the spirit and heart of the civil rights movement in his biopic, The Butler. Daniels decided to span three generations within that story and the movie suffered some due to that. It was tough to connect with the characters in their experiences because we were so quickly moved onto the next trial. With Selma, Ava DuVernay focuses her lens on a specific event in the life of Martin Luther King Jr.; the march from Selma, AL to Montgomery, AL in 1965. Honing in on this event allowed her to explore the depths of the people themselves, and succeed where The Butler fell short.
One item in particular that benefited from this ability to really zoom in on the characters was the spiritual element of King’s life. Too often when a film focuses on the life and story of King, the driving force of his faith is greatly watered down or shoved under the rug completely. Selma makes no bones about putting King’s faith front and center as the motivation behind this cause. King’s reliance on God was relayed in such a way as to feel completely genuine and necessary for King to maintain the assurance this cause demanded. This is a testament not only to DuVernay’s interweaving it within the story, but to David Oyelowo as well. Oyelowo sank into the role of Martin Luther King Jr. so well it seemed effortless. I felt every moment of anger, hesitation and righteous indignation right along with him.
A handful of moments before the march were highlighted in Selma. Specific sermons, the murder of demonstrators, and inner-family turmoil set the backdrop for the events that transpired leading up to the march. One such moment was King’s acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. In it he said, “I accept this honor for the 20 million American Negroes motivated by dignity and a disdain for hopelessness.” This dignity, derived from a sense of value as one who bears the image of God, is the backdrop and the reason for the demonstrations. King is joined at the top levels of his peaceful organization by fellow ministers, pastors and servants. Men and women of God who recognized the racial injustice as a crime against God as much as a crime against men.
The company which King kept was a testament to his ability to maintain this peaceful organization. Like-minded believers were absolutely necessary to its success. Not only organizationally, but for the sake of King’s sanity as well. There are two moments in particular that stand out to me as moments when King leaned heavily on the comfort through faith of his companions. Near the beginning of the film King places a call to a female. The viewer is curious at first what this is about, but it’s nothing devious. He’s struggling and he needs to hear “God’s voice”, as he puts it. The woman begins singing a gospel hymn over the phone, and we have one of the more touching and personal moments of the film. Another moment occurs in jail. King begins losing hope and worries that none of this will make any difference at all. A fellow pastor calms him down by reciting scripture. Matthew 6:26 to be precise. Jesus’ words concerning worry.
The above two moments were some of the more touching moments of the film. But plenty of scenes were also hard-hitting. In particular, every death we witness hits harder than you might expect. Not because they’re gruesome or overly graphic, but DuVerney has made you so invested in the story and made you care about the characters so quickly that their death is meaningful even if we’ve only known the characters for a short time. She shows here a terrific talent for handling an ensemble cast.
My Rating: 4/5
Oyelowo’s snub for best actor at the 2015 Oscars was maybe the most talked about. After seeing Selma I would have to agree. He’s acting at a level here not matched by many that year. My only complaints are aimed at some of the supporting cast and the inclusion of Malcolm X without there being much of a point to it. This is a terrific film that never seems to drag on, but provides constant drama aimed in once specific direction.